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Food Stuff: selling sauce as a way of life



Michael Fitzgerald says there's no question his mother Sally is the key to the continuing success of Fitzee's, the family's barbecue joint that's recently relocated to the corner of Cermak and Indiana. Mrs. Fitzgerald spends 12 to 14 hours a day at the restaurant, chopping up slabs of ribs, tossing oak chips on the fire, serving up platters of hot links, and slathering chicken wings with her patented fat-free barbecue sauce. If it's slow, she can be found in the back kitchen baking sweet potato pie, caramel cake, and--if she has time--her own favorite, an extremely rich 7UP cake.

Michael says he's been working awfully hard himself since the original Fitzee's opened in 1980. He came up with the restaurant's name and its trademark colors (red and mustard yellow). He's the one who got his mother's ribs named as a semifinalist in the first Royko Ribfest in 1982. He got the place reviewed by Channel Seven's James Ward and landed a promo on Fox Thing in the Morning. He won their portable rib cart a spot at five Tastes of Chicago and at three Chicago Jazz Festivals, and he maneuvered himself onto the advisory council of the Illinois Restaurant Association, a position that has allowed him to promote the restaurant while traveling on association business.

So who gets the credit, Michael or his mother? Michael himself is torn. "I said to a friend of mine last week, 'I'm the captain of the ship.' She said, 'No, you ain't the captain.' I said, 'A captain never leaves the ship.' She said, 'But you're just the cocaptain.' Well, like the Titanic, a captain never leaves the ship even if it's sinking. And I've never left. I've never left. Her saying that was an insult to me. But my mother is this business, so I guess I'm just living vicariously through my mother. I am the cocaptain."

For her part, Sally Fitzgerald is content to let Michael be the mouth of Fitzee's. "Let him do what he does best, and I'll do mine. There's something in him. He just wants to see things go. Oh dear, he certainly does. He's so hyped-up. He's just ready to roll."

A typical workday for Mrs. Fitzgerald is spent cooking. For Michael, there is no typical workday. He could be alternately answering phones, picking up enormous shipments of rib meat at a warehouse, putting up holiday decorations, or driving his brightly colored Fitzee's delivery truck around the South Loop. But promoting the restaurant is his singular goal.

Sally Fitzgerald opened the original Fitzee's Hickory House at the corner of 61st and Ashland in 1980 and set out after her dream to "make a million dollars" off her barbecue-sauce recipe. Michael was in high school at the time, and the neighborhood was bustling. The restaurant did excellent business for a few years. But as the neighborhood began to decline, so did the numbers. Michael was a journalism student at Columbia College in the mid-80s, but when he saw the restaurant struggling he cut back his class load and began his relentless quest.

He erected a seven-foot-tall painted cutout of a Fitzee's barbecue-sauce bottle on the roof. He had someone paint the side of the building in the restaurant's colors. He got the sauce distributed in just about every area grocery store. Meanwhile, he was sending letters with accompanying bottles of sauce to whomever he thought could help, from Mayor Daley to Richard Simmons.

In 1992 the Fitzgeralds tried a second location, in suburban Matteson, but they were stuck in the back of a dead strip mall and the store was gone in less than two years. Meanwhile, Sally Fitzgerald had been feeling worn down after a dozen years of working a barbecue pit in Englewood.

"We'd have customers come in, buy a slab, two slabs," she says, "and you'd hear later that they were stuck up and their ribs stolen. That hurt. Then they started coming inside of the store with guns, and we just had to go. You can only take so much."

In September the original Fitzee's Hickory House closed, "for remodeling," according to a sign in the window. "No one in our family wants to go back to that community right now," Michael says, "because there's too much drama still going on over there. It's gonna take a while before that is changed. It's gonna be a few years before we reopen. But in the meantime, my mother still owns the property, and our name is still featured on the building. Thousands of cars pass through there weekly, and as they stop they see Fitzee's. Whether we're there or not, I think it's important to keep our name alive."

On October 1, the new Fitzee's opened in a 100-year-old building across from the McCormick Place expansion. Nearly every inch of the 700-square-foot restaurant is covered by Michael's decorations. There are several photographs of him with various celebrities and politicians, including Jim Edgar, Stevie Wonder, comedian George Wallace, senators Paul Simon and Carol Moseley-Braun, Oprah Winfrey, and Judge Abraham Lincoln Marovitz, who Michael says told him, "I used to have hair like that." In every picture he is personally handing his new friend a bottle of his mother's sauce. There are also photos of the Fitzee's cart at the Democratic National Convention, Saks Fifth Avenue, and the Million Man March, as well as at less prominent locales like the Palmer Square Art Fair and the Brighton Park Lithuanian Festival. There's a photo of Michael holding up a bottle of sauce behind Newt Gingrich, whom he snuck up on during a restaurant association field trip to Washington, D.C. He's also laminated Newsweek's Princess Diana memorial cover, above which he has written in pen, "I saw her at Cook County Hospital. Yes...I wanted to give her a bottle of our fat-free BBQ sauce."

Fitzee's may have to move again because their landlord is selling the property. But Michael's not worried. Someday, he says, Fitzee's will be a million-dollar chain, and his mother will never have to work again.

"My mom has given it her best, but she's tired," he says as Mrs. Fitzgerald rolls her eyes. "She's been weathering the storm. And I would personally like to see my mother enjoy the fruits of her labor, to send her on a trip around the world so she can see what else this world has to offer other than just preparing food and working all the time."

"Sounds good," Mrs. Fitzgerald says.

"I think work is a great ethic, but she needs to rest. She's called me a racehorse before. She is also a racehorse. But she's tired. And I was raised to speak up and be outgoing. Now I am. She figures, I created this monster and now I need to lock him up. Well, mom, I'm out! And I won't be contained!"

Fitzee's Serious Ribs and Chicken, 2130 S. Indiana, is open for takeout and delivery from 11 AM to 10 PM Monday through Thursday, and 11 AM to midnight Friday and Saturday. The restaurant will be closed Sundays beginning January 1. Catering is available. Call 312-674-1775. -Neal Pollack

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo of Sally and Michael Fitzgerald by Nathan Mandell.

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